The Promise Makers

THE PROMISE MAKERS: When Promises Must be Broken–
(The italicized that follows is copyrighted from my book; may not be reproduced without permission)

J. Donna Sullivan, CSW, counsels adult children: “Never promise not to put your parents into institutional care.”  While promises are made with the best of intentions, she says, certain health conditions can arise that make remaining in one’s home unwise, if not impossible.

Many parents have learned that promising never to do something is unwise. Why do adult children fail to follow this wisdom when it comes to their parents?  We hear stories about adult children who have promised never to put their parents in a nursing home and ultimately take on more responsibility than they ever dreamed possible, wearing themselves to a frazzle, causing feelings of frustration and resentment.  Motivation may be love, a feeling of duty, guilt, money issues….

Some therapists say there may an element of martyrdom.  They also question: if the children give up the caregiver role, what will replace it in their life?  Other children, however, are glad they were able to care for a loved one, feel it has provided a unique opportunity to be with their parent, and treasure the special relationship they shared.  They wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. Meet Mitzi.

Mitzi, an only child, had a close, loving relationship with her mother, who was  important in Mitzi’s family’s life throughout Mitzi’s marriage and the children’s growing up. Early on Mitzi made a promise: as long as Mitzi was there, her mother would “never, never go into a nursing home.”

Many years later Mitzi’s widowed mother, in her 80s, developed Parkinson’s.  Faithful to her promise, Mitzi hired around-the-clock help; but that didn’t alleviate Mitzi’s feelings of concern  and responsibility.  Every day, without fail after work, she visited her mother. As the Parkinson’s progressed, Mitzi’s boss, a physician, counseled: “You’re doing yourself and your mother an injustice, keeping her at home.”

Mitzi’s mother, became wheel-chair bound, developed pneumonia. She was hospitalized. As her release from the hospital neared, the medical staff advised Mitzi that her mother would have better help and support in a nursing home. Mitzi planned to take her mother home, then realized that the many stairs in her home “created a physically impossible situation.”  A nursing home was the only option.

“With trepidation, fear, resentment etc.,” Mitzi says, she “put” her mother in the home.”  To this day, twenty years later, she remembers the details: How her “heart sank” as she watched her mother being wheeled into the nursing home. “I didn’t do it out of choice,” she said, “I did it out of necessity…No choice no one could care for her at home.”

Mitzi did it right in terms of  respecting her mother’s wishes and giving her mother the most independence possible for as long as was possible.  Had she not made the original promise, she would not be feeling the sense of remorse that remains twenty years later.


1. Never promise–based on emotion–something that you may have no control over later–like not putting someone in a nursing home.
2. Pushing ourselves to the limit may not be in anyone’s best interest. Many will “bend over backwards” to do for aging parents–will push to do one more hour, one more day, one more week, one more month–ignoring the fact that at some point exhaustion sets in. Denial may be a factor.
3. Denial may be at work without our being aware. It’s a psychological defense mechanism that protects us from having to deal with something until we’re emotionally/psychologically ready, but doesn’t change reality.
4. Be prepared–not just for Boy Scouts. Gathering facts so we know our realistic options, before a crisis, prepares us better. We “see the cards on the table,” so to speak.
5. Before a crisis, listen to what clear-thinking parents want–understand the financial implications, and know who you can depend on.
6. Make the effort to get responsible part-time help. Everyone needs a break (one or two 1/2 days or one 8-hour day). This may extend the months or years we’re able to help parents.
7. The best gift a far-away-living child can give to a caregiving sibling: arrange to relieve that sibling from time to time so (s)he has a vacation or days off.

Options exist to help aging parents with increasing health issues. To choose wisely, we evaluate the pros and cons, while taking our parents’ needs and wishes, plus our willpower, devotion, stamina and circumstances into account. Easier said than done, but it does get done….hopefully in the best way possible for all.

Note: “Of Current Interest” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities plus some fun stuff–to help parents age well.